A People Displaced

by Blaine Pennington

A leap into the unknown Jordan


"Everything," the weathered man said, gesturing across the expanse of red and purple rock, "used to be ours." Leaning against a whitewashed stone fence high above the city, my gaze drifted outward to the valley of sandstone below. The man's name was Shekim, a Bedouin camel driver I had met just days before while exploring the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. Upon learning I was traveling alone, he invited me to stay with his family as his guest. We spent our days on the outskirts of the city, hand harvesting wheat, pulling rainwater from cisterns, and our evenings resting in a neighboring village high above Petra. It was in that village that I now stood with Shekim. "When I was a child," he told me. "We lived in Petra. Everything was better. Our homes were not hot. They are hot here. And we live far away. We want to live like our ancestors," his voice tinged in sadness. For centuries, the Bedouin people had claimed the sandstone cliffs of Petra as their home. However in 1985, UNESCO awarded Petra with world heritage status and in order to protect it from the effects of encroachment, the Jordanian government forced the majority of its Bedouin inhabitants from their ancestral homes into sedentary, free standing houses in a village just outside of Petra called Umm Sayhoun. Many Bedouin were displeased with the arrangement. "They built these houses and make us live here." Shekim continued. "We cannot live in Petra. We cannot live in the house of our father." It was then Shekim's brother called out from behind us, "Come! We go now!" Shekim turned to me, a grin crawling across his face. "It is OK, Blaine. Tonight, we break the law." That evening, the entire family would be sneaking across the city boundaries back to their familial home for the night. As the sun slid behind the horizon, we mounted the camels and began our trek into Petra. Hours later under the cover of darkness, we dismounted by a secluded cave carved into the side of a sheer cliff. Around its entrance, Shekim's young children chased each other in the guise of camels while his wife passed around a communal pan filled with mansaf, a white, oily mixture with bits of soaked bread to be eaten with one's hands. As we sat around the fire, Shekim's brother ran his fingers along the strings of a sitar, his baritone voice echoing through the desert night. Shekim and I leaned back against a large rock jutting up behind us. "This is what it was before," he said to me. "This is what it should be."